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Markets and morals Essay


Michael Sandel was correct in asserting that some aspects of life should never be tainted by money. Money has a perverting effect that devalues human life as well as human relationships. Additionally, it leads to inequality and may even destroy relationships.

Several cultures illustrate the meaning of money by the way they treat it. Some of the results that emanate from excessive proliferation of money are both undesirable and untenable in today’s society.

How these assertions are true

Sandel (4) explained that the recent, global financial crisis illustrated the imperfections of the market economy. It proved that markets were not effective at allocating risks and was thus ill-suited for certain aspects of life. The proliferation of money into aspects of society that depend on other norms is the root cause of the financial crisis (Sandel 5).

These patterns have also created other crises in society like inequality and corruption. Polanyi (43) explains that liberal economic theorists made a mistake to assume that human behaviour is governed by the need to maximise profits. This is not true for several aspects of life. In fact, prior to the creation of free markets, societies were governed by the need for reciprocity or redistribution.

A typical case is a family in the Trobriand Islands. Persons in this culture focus on subsistence and redistribution through feasts. In other societies, people can be motivated by the need to enhance their national security. Therefore, profit maximisation would be secondary to this goal. The problem with excessive domination of money in society is the subversion of social relations.

When markets penetrate almost all dimensions of life, they may lead to inequality (Sandel 5). This is because money would be the key to success in all spheres. Such a means of exchange would make the difference between acquisition of basic needs and the lack of them. Affluence would dramatically affect the quality of one’s life and thus widen the gap between the rich and the poor.

Commoditisation of public land by enclosures limits access to this vital resource and thus causes dependence on others (employers) (Polanyi 102). Privatisation and sale of certain commodities, like public land, threatens society because it leads to unrest. This process of putting a price to communal land, through enclosures, increases its value, which makes it inaccessible to the large majority.

Many individuals may become frustrated at their inability to acquire property and thus revolt against property owners. Penetration of money into communal property may also lead to adverse environmental consequences such as pollution, deforestation, disruption of craftsmanship and housing.

Living in a pollution-free environment or having skilled and creating craftsmen are all goals that have nothing to do with profit-maximisation; they are instead pegged on human relations and well being.

Sandel (6) points out that money has a corrosive effect when it reaches other spheres of life because it fosters unwanted attitudes towards the items being exchanged. For instance, when private security firms replace army personnel in wars, countries may save their people’s lives, but this may devalue citizenship.

As such, money will have promoted a perverted attitude towards such a crucial ideology. Additionally, if potential mothers choose to pay surrogate mothers for their services regardless of their fertility status, then this devalues motherhood. When money enters such realms of life, it corrupts their true value.

Unlike what previous economists had stated, money is not value-free; every transaction means something to entities participating in it. In fact, the effect of the values that money creates is so influential that it may sometimes neutralise or eliminate the non –market values affecting that activity.

If money were involved in all human activities then it would ruin human relationships. Hart (13) explains that money was not always regarded as impersonal. In traditional societies, people often carried out transactions with individuals they knew. Therefore, they could exercise discretion over the nature or the kind of person that they interacted with.

However, modern society changed this when it was perceived that exchanges would take place in markets, where seemingly unattached individuals met anonymously and exchanged goods. Therefore, one would argue that the impersonal nature of this approach would lead to desirable effects. However, this is not true for several transactions because the state makes this discretion for an individual.

A person who qualifies for a loan from a bank proves that he or she is trustworthy and that he deserves the loan. Alternatively, if one receives payment from one’s employers, then the person testifies to his hard work and commitment to the organisation. Whenever an individual is exposed to a situation where he or she receives money for services rendered, then the transaction testifies to that person’s character.

Not many people understand this truth as they assume that money is impersonal. They also think that such factors only hold true for traditional societies which were highly interpersonal. Money sometimes masks the usefulness of human relationships and characteristics because of the anonymity it provides.

As a result, its proliferation in different aspects of interaction should be re-examined for effectiveness. Only the most prudent individuals will refrain from hiding behind the anonymity of money and truly look into the character of the person they are transacting with.

Zelizer (133) adds that money is not objective depending on the people using it and the activities they partake. For instance, if one won money in a lottery, they would spend that money in a different way than if a friend loaned them the money. Even recipients of money have a profound effect on how the money will be used.

For instance, a waitress can be tipped by a client but one cannot do the same to a policeman man as this would be perceived as a bribe. Additionally, one may have certain intentions for their money. For instance, they may opt to save it for a rainy day or pay rent with it. All these decisions prove that money is not an objective thing.

Therefore, individuals have the right to make decisions regarding how permissive they want to make money. They can make choices on the suitability of a certain activity to a market. Individuals ought to know that engaging in transactions does not delineate them from cultural and social constraints.

Since money has such a powerful effect, then its applicability in life ought to be done very selectively. Zelizer (18) elegantly says that “Money does serve as a key rational tool of the modern economic market; it also exists outside the sphere of the market and is profoundly influenced by social and cultural structures”. Since this is true, then its effect ought to be limited only to certain aspects of life.

Certain items should not be commoditised because money cannot reflect their true value. For instance, one cannot sell one’s baby as this would demean the value of that human life. No matter how unprepared one was for motherhood, it would be immoral to sell a child because that would undermine the value of that child.

All humans deserve to be treated with dignity and respect; consequently, selling them to others for a certain sum of money would be denying them that right.

Public goods are also activities that must be delineated from monetary transactions as they also reflect certain values. Introducing money into the system would destroy these values. For instance, one cannot pay another person to vote for them because this is one’s civic duty.

Public responsibilities cannot be quantified and sold to the highest bidder (Sandel 7). Mauss (67) explains that collective rights exist in almost all countries around the world. When an elderly person falls ill, he or she has the right to access certain forms of protection such as Medicare for the elderly.

These protections stem from the life and labour that a worker provided to his employer and his country in general. This labour is a gift which ought to be returned. Mauss (13) affirms that gift giving has a spirit known as hau. When an individual receives a gift, he or she experiences feelings of reciprocity that will prompt him to return the hau.

Likewise, when a worker has dedicated his entire life towards a certain career, then chances are that wages earned are not enough to compensate for this gift. Governments need to guarantee such workers another social benefit like health insurance in order to reciprocate their hau.

Therefore, public services ought to be perceived as purchases because they are a form of gift for the input that the worker gave throughout his life. On the flipside, if a government pays people unemployment benefits even before they start working, then chances are that the individuals will not experience feelings of reciprocity.

In this regard, they will become dependent on the state as no sense of duty will exist. When public services are treated as transactions, then an unhealthy relationship exists between the government and the beneficiaries. Money would destroy that sense of duty unless it is done in the context of gift-giving.


Money should not pervade all activities in society; the responsible thing to do is to make calculated choices about which activities are suitable for market economies and which ones are not. Society has a tendency to choose the easy way out because it does not involve the painstaking process of moral judgements. Markets have pervaded different aspects of society because they are non judgmental and unbiased.

However, if this state of affairs is left to continue, then chances are that societies will become more corrupt and more unequal. Commodities or transactions often imply rationality and other undesirable traits such as individualism, impersonal relations and material gain.

Conversely, gifts represent moral obligations, personal relations, collective responsibility and non monetary rewards. Gifts are the glue that holds a society together while markets and commodities drive them apart (Parry 55). Capitalism has contributed to excessive focus on commodities and little emphasis on human relationships. A balance ought to be restored in order to make society fair again.

Works Cited

Hart, Keith. “Money is always Personal and Impersonal.” Anthropology Today 23.5(2007): 12-16. Print.

Mauss, Marcel. The gift. London: Routledge, 1990. Print.

Parry, James. The gift, the Indian gift and the ‘Indian gift‘. NS: Man, 1986. Print.

Polanyi, Karl. The great transformation. New York: Rinehart, 1944. Print.

Sandel, Michael. What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. Harvard: HUP, 2010. Print.

Zelizer, Viviana. The Social Meaning of Money: pin money, paychecks, poor relief and other currencies. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997. Print.

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